BLOODY REFERENDUM. You can’t get away from it. Shut your eyes and doze off for a while – it’s still there when you open them again.
No matter what my ambitions for this blog might have been – and still may be – for the next month or so I’ll need to deal with this subject, because to do otherwise would be perversity to a degree that even I couldn’t justify . . . It’s still my intention to cover other subjects as well, though, in the short term as well as later on. Let’s see how far I get with that.
The failure to pass the hurdle set for the Devolution referendum in 1979 was a shock to the system for many of us. The vehemence of the No campaign was startling. There’s a dark humour to be found in comparing what No meant then to what No means now, given that the arguments are much the same (that is, predictions of doom deriving from the “Scottish Cringe”) and come from the same sources (including our “business leaders”), but despite that the alternative solutions couldn’t be more different.
I’m old enough to remember the nationalists in the 1970s: very different from the SNP of today. Then, we called them the “Tartan Tories” and wondered at their passionate anti-Europeanism. Let’s not overlook too that there were SNP voices in 1979 arguing that you should vote No because no loaf was somehow better than half of one.
Following the 2011 SNP victory at Holyrood, the talk was of a three-question referendum: (a) full independence, (b) enhanced devolution (Devo Max, as we used to call it) and (c) no change to the existing arrangements. Devo Max would have been a racing certainty to top the poll: my guess is 60% of the vote, vs 25% for full independence and 15% for a straight No. The pundits told us that Alex Salmond was particularly keen on having three options because he acknowledged the scale of the challenge otherwise and did appreciate the value of half a loaf as opposed to none.
Then Bullingdon Boy and his advisers had their bright idea of trading a commitment to honour the result in return for limiting us to a single question with a Yes/No option only. Snookered him, they must have thought: full independence would be too scary – and Project Fear would work hard at that just to make sure – so in the absence of any other alternative, the Jocks would wimp out. They’d be caught fast for the foreseeable future, or at least for a generation.
All of which led us to an unintended consequence. Having been spooked by the evidence of a drift towards Yes, over the course of this year the Unionist parties have come forward with their promises of more powers for the existing devolved set-up. Leaving aside the matter of what the promises mean exactly (for one thing, you can’t bind a future Westminster Parliament), the apparent consequence of this development is that in effect the No option has mutated into a Devo Plus one (which is not the same as Devo Max, we’re told, though I’m stumped as to how you could tell that).
So, on 18th September we will still have only two options to choose from, but the difference is that the excluded third one is now that of keeping the status quo. Don’t think that’s what BB’s advisers quite meant to happen and that’s after a couple of years of allowing the Yes campaign to build up a head of steam on the back of a watering down of independence to make it look less threatening, i.e. increasingly like Devo Max in any case. If you take the promises at face value then no matter which way you vote Holyrood is going to get more powers, but stopping short of what most would consider to be outright separation from the existing UK. As an aside, however, the level of trust in the Unionist parties is bound to be the biggest loser in all of this because in the event they simply will not be able to keep those promises.
Roll forward from 1979 into the 1980s and 1990s, leading eventually to the 1997 referendum, delivered by Donald Dewar but built on the legacy of John Smith. The first part of that period was of course dominated by the impact of Thatcher, but in time we took up the constitutional debate again.
I remember being very clear on my approach to this: how can I vote for independence when I don’t know what it means? The better idea is to get some devolution and try it out. If the experience is good then progressively – but incrementally – we extend the transfer of powers until we reach the point at which it starts to stop feeling comfortable. Then we take stock, consider where we’ve ended up and how best to formalise the position in terms of a lasting constitutional settlement. If the EC/EU has realised its own proclaimed ambitions by then, Westminster may well have become an unnecessary layer of government in any case. Things didn’t quite turn out like that . . .
The best thing about the current No campaign is its name. “Better Together” is in truth an attractive message. All you really needed to do was to proclaim that as the ideal and leave it at that. Anything else would obscure the simple purity of a straightforward appeal to . . . well . . . togetherness. Perhaps a few images of WWII (the Blitz spirit and so on), some sporting achievement that featured a UK-wide team (bit of a challenge that one, I admit) and even a UK winner of Eurovision (Lulu?).
(Yes, indeed she was. A joint one, true, but that’s better than Sir Cliff managed.)
“Better Together” is such a powerful message in its own right that it’s bound to be the strapline for the proposed 2017 referendum on membership of the EU . . . dontcha think?
Back to the matter of asking: what does independence look like? It’s as relevant now as it was 25 years ago. The persistent refrain from the audiences on Question Time and the other TV debates is that “we’re not getting answers to the important questions and we need more information before we can decide how to vote”.
Au contraire, mes braves. We do not need more statistics, estimates and projections. There is in fact more than enough such material available. What is true is that to make a final judgement on whether or not we fancy moving to an independent state does require us to be further forward in the debate than we are now. Despite the passage of time, I find myself in the same position as I had been in previously.
Eck undoubtedly speaks the truth when he claims that the Westminster position on currency is an initial stance that will move during negotiations and he has recently conceded that the same applies to his own side. Opening positions are one thing; final outcomes are another. Just about everything is potentially up for debate when it comes to the period between a Yes vote and the point of separation (and the period beyond that, more than likely).
The world is full of examples of concessions and compromises resulting from liberation and independence negotiations. The US has territory on the island of Cuba (Guantanamo) and the UK retains substantial military bases in an otherwise independent Cyprus. There were even four British naval ports within the boundaries of the Irish Free State throughout the 1920s and 1930s, until Chamberlain decided to let them go, much to the fury of Churchill. Want to bet on the future of Faslane?
What it will all centre on is the scheme for division of the assets and the debt. Spare me any patronising comparisons with splitting up the CD collection. George Osborne appears to think that’s how to talk to us simple, common folk, but that’s another misjudgement on his part, to add to a long list.
The rUK will retain full responsibility for the debt in the eyes of the lenders concerned. The UK Treasury has already made that commitment, which is no more than sensible in terms of keeping the markets calm. The downside to that is that Scotland will then be landed with a debt burden which is solely in the form of an I.O.U. to rUK and which is therefore denominated in Sterling. That’s why it would be in the interest of both states for them to share a currency (at least for a generation). The last thing Scotland needs (and rUK too, for that matter) is for an exchange rate risk to be added on top of the principal burden itself.
I suggest going one better than that, though: how about no debt at all? If that means a compensating trade-off when it comes to dividing up the assets (for example, the oil revenues) or some other concession or two (I mentioned Faslane above) then so be it – it will have been worth it.
No debt means that the currency issue can recede into the background. Whilst a common currency may still be worth pursuing, if the rUK wants to play hard ball on the matter then we can survive that if we have no debt to hold us down. Setting up a new currency, with its associated reserve requirements, is a whole different prospect if there’s no initial debt burden. There would be a completely different reaction by the markets to the assessment of the risk of default.
I digress into detail, however. There will be a negotiation, the outcome of which is difficult to predict. What can be said with confidence, though, is that some of the positions currently proclaimed to be absolutely not-for-discussion will turn out to be not so off-limits after all. You will indeed get the additional information you’ve been asking for, but – of necessity – it can’t become available until there has been the negotiation of terms, which won’t be taking place before the referendum vote (and not at all if the decision goes against independence). In other words, you have to vote Yes to be able to find out what you needed to know in the first place to be able to decide how to vote. A Catch-22, no less.
Which brings us back to the referendum question. How can I vote for independence when I don’t know what it means? Likewise, how can I vote against it? Well, there’s an answer to that conundrum: a two-stage process for the decision. It’s of course too late to change what happens on 18th September, but there’s plenty of time before May 2016 to influence how we proceed with things.
In any case, the UK Government is under no obligation to act on the result of the vote in September. A Westminster Parliament cannot be bound by previous decisions or undertakings, no matter what anyone thinks the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement said on the subject. (All it did say, in fact, was that the result would be one that “everyone will respect”, whatever that means.) There’s got to be a real danger that Westminster would find a reason to park the result meantime (a Royal Commission?), particularly as any majority would be slim. A two-stage process may just have a chance of avoiding all that, however; even Westminster parties might find the logic attractive.
The first stage is the 18th September vote itself. After that comes the detailed negotiation of terms, the outcome of which will be presented to the people (and Parliament). It’s only then that you’ll know what you’re getting.
The final stage should then be another plebiscite, a confirmatory or ratification step. The question would be asked again, but this time with the answers – good and bad – to the requests for information being set out for you (at least to the extent that the negotiations have managed to deliver them). If the Unionist parties were prepared to make some definite commitments as to what Devo Plus would mean, perhaps we could even get a shot at a meaningful three-question referendum this time round.
Voting No means you’ll never find out what might have been possible. (Perhaps your children or grandchildren might, the next time round, but you won’t.)
So, vote Yes, but with a caveat. Make it known to your elected representatives that you’d like to know what it would be like, but also that you want to reserve the right to bail out if you don’t like what you see. Have the whole loaf and eat it. Don’t settle for anything less.